Blowing shit up is American as apple pie. And on the Fourth of July, it's done with maniacal glee. Oregonians dash to Washington to get the biggest bangs. Drunken patriots fire wayward mortars on neighboring roofs, battle with Roman candles and launch bottle rockets from their teeth. Appendages become hamburger in the salute to the red, white and blue. Hell, Estacada becomes a virtual war zone.
Luckily, Tigard, Portland's suburban neighbor to the south, has John Chamberlain, a certified pyrotechnician who has kept a perfect record of safety for 20 years. And it's got his pyro-supervisor, John's dad, Joe Chamberlain. Every year, the pair launch $14,000 worth of shells into the sky for the Tigard Old Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration.
While Portland fireworks companies struggle to survive (see page 11 for the full story), the Chamberlains' old-school, independent display is goin' strong. Hand-lit fuses launch some 350 shells into the sky, making the Tigard festival a tradition enjoyed by all fire bugs.
Some think it's crazy to be at ground zero on the Fourth. But for John Chamberlain, a heating and air conditioning contractor by trade, it's business as usual.
WW: I like to blow things up. So how do I get your job?
John Chamberlain: I started helping out when my dad started a show over his pond in Tigard [back in 1970]. You have to be involved in about three fireworks shows for three different years and be involved in [all of] the aspects of doing a show. You have to pass a test from the state, and go to training classes about every two years to renew your license.
How do you light those suckers up?
We put the mortars and embed them in a stand and we set all the shells. We tape the fuse to the end of a plastic pipe, which gets you about three feet away from the mortar.
Damn, have you ever singed your eyebrows or done bodily harm to yourself or anyone else?
Luckily, I have all my fingers. We never had anybody injured. No burns or anything. We've got earplugs in and goggles, protective fireware....
You're lucky. My grandpa blew his fingers off once while trying to impress the neighbors.
Yeah, I'm more worried about people who have the not-quite-legal fireworks. They've got rockets flying all over the place. We keep the crowd away from the fireworks.
Do you ever freak out at "go time"?
Naw, it's fun. If you've ever been down by a fireworks, you'll find your head gets thumped pretty good by the concussion of the shells going into the air. It's pretty fun.
Does the "show must go on" always apply?
We had a few times where we had to wait for the rain. You direct the shells to explode and fall into a certain area. If the wind is strong one way, you angle the mortar in the opposite direction. It's like aiming a gun.
Do you shoot off guns, too?
Just fireworks. I've hunted before; I have a rifle. I'm not really the kind of guy who does a lot of shooting guns.
So what do you blow up for fun?
(Laughs) This is pretty much where I get my fireworks experience. If you've ever been around, you'd see what a kick I get when I fire ['em off].
What's your favorite pyrotechnical thingamajiggy?
I love the "Salute." Nothing but pure powder. They just go up in the air and explode. There's no sparkle, no crackling. Just one huge explosion.
If you could blast one person into the sky like a firework, who would it be?
Shoot them up there, blow them up! Any person, living or dead. Put them in a mortar and blast them into the stratosphere. BLAM! Who would it be?
(Laughs) I can't think of anyone I'd want to blast into the sky. Hopefully, they'd have a parachute.
After much prodding, the man packing enough heat to take out half of Tigard remains a humanitarian with no desire to launch another human being into the sky to be incinerated.
And he calls himself a patriot.
Tigard Old Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration, Tigard High School football stadium, 9000 SW Durham Road, Tigard. Gates open at 6 pm. Fireworks at dusk.